Posted 5-23-05 by Victor Daniels


CONFUCIUS: A Brief Summary of Central Principles

Note: The first four concepts below are as articulated by Lao-tzu in the Tao Teh Ching. Those that follow, beginning with Li, are as presented by Confucius. The discussion of them presented in this section is from Archie J. Bahm's Confucius, New York: Weatherhill, 1969, reprinted by Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1992. This simmary also draws on Bahm's Tao Teh King, by Lao Tzu, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1958.


  TAO A common translation of Tao is "Nature," which can be taken to mean the entire universe and everything in it as it naturally occurs. "The Way" of nature can be observed in the growth of plants, procession of the seasons, and all other natural events as they occur without human interference. Tao is also often translated as "The Way," meaning the "Great Way," with a meaning that appears to me somewhere between "The Natural Way" and "The Force" of Star Wars. For Lao-tzu, ultimate virtue and goodness in life emerge from learning to live in accord with the Tao. One who lives by the Taonaturally recognizes in every situation the best way to act, and does not need rules, regulations, laws, etc. Having said this, the Tao Teh Ching goes on to describe in some detail in numerous different situation what acting in accord with the Tao means, which combines humility and unselfishness with a kind of natural ethics.
      Nature consists of natures. People, the various animals, plants, trees, lakes, etc, has its own nature and folloows its own nature. The universal Tao consists of many taos, of natures of the many beings, which each has its own natural way and progress of development to follow.
  TEH The ability of anything to follow its own nature. Nature never behaves unnaturally, except when humans interfere. It is the nature of people to eat until their hunger is satisfied, but to overeat or undereat are both ways of deviating from this nature.

Lao-Tzu believed that we can learn to return to acting in accord with our original nature, and then governors and tax collectors are unnecessary. He counseled avoiding the artificialities of civilization. From a Confucian perspective, his views were anarchistic. From a Taoist perspective, Confucius advocated a limited and artificial way of life.


  YANG & YIN These are opposites, with an element of each contained within the other. They are the beginning and end of all things in nature. "Opposition is the source of all growth," said Conficius. ""Oppositeness will continue forever, no matter how many opposites may come and go." (Bahm, 1958, p. 15)
  Yang is the principle of initiation, often viewed as "masculine"  
  Yin is the principle of completion, often viewed as "feminine"  
    "The tendency toward completion and the tendency of initiation...acting together, complement each other." (Bahm, 1958, p. 43) We usually get into trouble when we forget that yang and yin go together and need each other, and dualistically lock ourselves into either side of a polarity. Confucius goes on to point out that it is "natural for men to be social and that the principles of initiation and compoletion (yang and yin) permeate human association also in ways that are obvious to anyone who takes the trouble to recognize them." (1992, p. 26)
YI (I) Yi symbolizes the best way of doing things. Lao-tzu had said that "The wise man neither deviates from the way inherent in his inner own inner nature nor causes others to stray from the ways of their own inner natures." (Bahm, 1992, p. 27) Confucius agreed. In Bahm's words, "When a tao has teh, then yi prevails. When yi prevails, then a tao has teh. 'It is by self-activity that all things fulfill themselves. . . . The intelligent man [accepts] each man's way as best for himself. And he performs the same service for all other beings, for he willinglyk recognizes that, by following its own nature, each thing does the best that can be done for it." (ibid) .

Jen is good will--a willingness to do what is best for all concerned. This is based in Yi. Lao-tzu said, "The intelligent man accepts what others will for themselves as his will for them." But Jen is more than Yi. When peopel depend on each other, they have mutual interests as well as their individual ones. The self-activity of a mother who is breast feeding her child involves natural social cooperation by each with the other. "In such social cooperation, neither meddles with, or tries to change the nature of, the other, and neither deviates from his own nature in providing for the other what the other needs." (Bahm, 1992, p. 29)

By studying human association in his own community, in other kingdoms, and in historical records, Confucius concluded that an essential principle of social relations is that of reciprocity. This means that "persons tend to act in relation to others as others act in relation to them." In a sense this is an example of yin-yang: One person initiates (yang) and the other responds (yin)

By this principle," a father should treat his son as he would like to be treated if he were his son. . . . For Confucius, this principle is not strictly equalitarian. People who are unequal should not mistakenly treat each other as if they were equals. . . . 'Discriminating love' [is] good will toward others which takes into account the actual differences involved in their inner natures and also their social positions." (Bahm, 1992, p. 34) This is very different from Lao-tzu's perspective, in which a radical humility holds that people should not presume superiority to others.

In the realm of reciprocity, in contrast to Jesus Golden Rule --"Do unto others. . . " which formulates an affirmative principle, Confucius frame his admonitions in a negative fashion -- "Do not do to others what you wouldn't want them to do to you. This is related to teh: to "do to others" can be viewd as a form of :mneddling.: which is a kind of "willful, even aggressive, assertion, rather than . . . willing, permissive, even submissive, acceptance," observes Bahm (1992, p. 38). "Actually,:" he goes on, reciprocality involves . . . the need for both doing and doing not . . . so frequently that dogmatice ...preference for either an exclusively positive or negative formulation soon proves itself to be inadquate."




Li is the "appropiate manner of overt behavior needed to express one's inner thoughts or intentions." (Bahm, 1992, p. 39) It includes socially proper ways of acting, and also acting toward others in ways such that they will not mistake your intentions. One's outer expression should reflect one's inner nature, or at least one's intention in this situation. This involves a measure of chung, described below. There is considerable subjectivity involved in determining li, but yi, jen, and hsin all require li.

For Confucius, li included proper etiquette or good manners, as agreed on by thee family and community. One who fails to make use of them is more likely to be misunderstood. However, deceivers can also make use of such rules of etiquette, and someone who is taken in by a false use of good etiquette is likely to become mistrustful.

Learning the customary forms of external behavior should not be done blindly, but with an explanation and understanding of their inner significance--why they are important. Formalism occurs when one's external forms do not correctly reveal one's internal attitudes, and this shoud be avoided. But the ideals and principles suggested by Confucius ultimately gave rise to much that is formalistic, and as a result many have forgotten that antiformalism was an important principle in his teachings.

(We may note that Confucius was said to have exceptionally good manners even as a child, and to have been very interested in rules of etiquette throughout his life.)





"True together," so that two or more persons are living together harmoniously in accordance with their true natures. Each lives in accordance with his or her own nature, yet also finds self-realization partly through the genuine self-realization of the other.

CHUNG Chung is genuineness. Confucius recognized that people often lack chung -- fail to be genuine. Without chung, true reciprocity cannot be achieved. His writing also appears to me suggest that true chung necessarily includes both teh and jen. The concept appears to me parallel to the existential one of authenticity, and the Rogerian one of congruence.
YUNG Enduring, persevering.
CHUNG YUNG Enduring, undeviating behavior that includes genuineness on one hand and steadfastness and persistance on the other. Implies nondeviation from this way.
CHIH Chih is wisdom. This includes 1) Understanding yi (that acting naturally is the best way) 2) having jen (sincere good will); 3) practicing Li; habitually including yi, jen, and li in one's attitudes and actions. Wisdom is not something momentary, but an ongoing acceptance of each task as it comes, and dealing with each in a way that embodiesa continuing commitment to these three ideals..
HSIN Hsin is sincerity. The principle of reciprocity tells us that if you are not sincere with others, you can expect them to be insincere with you. A pretense of goodwill toward others will bring a pretense of goodwill toward you in return. Such deceit brings deceit, distrust, and fear in return. Hsin is inherent in the nature of jen.
Rectification of names This is calling things by their right names, that is, names that describe them accurately and do not mislead. For example, in our time, using the label "Clear Skies Act" for legislation that allows industries to pollute the air more than they did previously is a clearly misleading name that should be rectified--pehaps as the "Increased Air Pollution Act."

Sympathetic insight and Sympathy

These were important for Confucius but, according to Bahm, less so for Lao-tzu. "For Lao-tzu," writes Bahm, "having general knowledge that each thing has its own nature and that, if left alone, it will fulfill that nature, is sufficient. One need merely refrain from meddling in the lives of others and all will go well.